Back in September of 2018, one of my essays was published in New Reader Magazine, and since NRM’s back issues are not easily accessible and since my essay’s topic is somewhat evergreen, I’m reposting it here. (I do retain the rights to it, of course.) If you like this essay and think more people should see it, please feel free to share this post (in its entirety, credited to me). Also please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on the, shall we say, call to adventure/action this essay presents.
Thoughts and Slayers:
What We Do About Grendel, Our Oldest and Most Persistent Villain
The oldest surviving poem in English highlights much of what we still struggle with, centuries later. It involves a monster who destroys the mead hall, the most communal of settings.
Grendel lives. Sadly, he thrives.
The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is a part of our language’s literary canon and cultural heritage, and the poem’s first and most infamous villain remains a threat to us. In the story, Grendel, the monster who attacks the inhabitants of modern-day Denmark, is a vaguely humanoid beast with impenetrable skin who kills and eats the Danes, gobbles them up like jelly beans right in their own mead hall, every night for twelve winters. His monstrosity, however, comes from more reasons than just wrecking shop in the Danes’ mead hall, and he’s still vitally important for what he represents within our society, far removed from Dark Ages Denmark and those who fought against him, or chose not to.
The epic contains surprisingly little physical description of the monster. When I used to teach Beowulf to ninth graders, I would talk to them about what I called The Grendel Situation and then ask them to draw pictures of him. Mostly they came up with fangy, clawed, hairy, green creatures dripping with the blood of half-Dane corpses. What they could not yet internalize was the abstract evil Grendel presents and the practical, tangible dangers that make him relevant now. They could not yet see that we, too, are living in the mead hall.
Grendel’s role as a monster is defined in part through his lineage. One of the most important values in the Danes’ culture was one’s pedigree. Warriors often introduced themselves by giving a litany of their father’s and sometimes their grandfather’s accomplishments. Beowulf’s explanation of who he is to the Danish coast-guard references his king and his father before anything else:
“We belong by birth to the Geat people
and owe allegiance to Lord Hygelac.
In his day, my father was a famous man,
a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow.
He outlasted many a long winter
and went on his way. All over the world
men wise in counsel continue to remember him.” (Heaney, lines 260-266)
Grendel, on the other hand, is delineated as being a descendant of Cain, Adam and Eve’s son from The Book of Genesis who slays his brother Abel. This crime earns him God’s mark, ensuring he can never be killed by anyone, including himself. Cast out and cursed to wander, Cain becomes a pariah. Grendel, too,
…had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts…
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God… (Heaney, lines 104-107, 111-113)
In Anglo-Saxon, Grendel is compared to “eotenas” (Beowulf, line 112), a word whose etymology relates it to “jötunn,” the Old Norse word for giant. The etymology for “eoten” is “cannibal” or “one who eats you.” Because that’s what trolls do.
So lineage was important to the Danes, but what bothered them? One of the biggest taboos in Danish culture at the time of Beowulf was the killing of one’s kin: wrecking your community was a no-no. Who is Grendel’s only notable ancestor? Cain, cursed by God for murdering his brother. The logical extension of this means Grendel himself is doomed to be at odds with God or goodness. For the newly Christian audience of Beowulf, this lineage had a striking impact: Grendel was necessarily evil. Even before they knew him, they knew he came from bad stock; for them, this was a problem.
Grendel doesn’t rise above this lineage, either; his role as a monster is defined by his anti-social actions. He attacks the Danes in the mead hall Heorot, the center of the community, by literally killing and eating them. Yet he also attacks the Danes in a broader way by making Heorot an unsafe place, so that the Danes begin sleeping far away from the mead hall. The sense of community is broken apart, as the place where everyone congregates for social and political purposes becomes a place of danger and death. Grendel is a monster because he commits the atrocity of murder against individuals, and he is a monster because he commits atrocities against the society in which those individuals live.
But Grendel doesn’t merely destroy the community by invading the sanctity of the mead hall, causing sorrow where mirth existed before. Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, cannot adequately defend his people from such unambiguous villainy, which threatens his ability to fulfill the Good King paradigm set down in the prologue of the epic by his legendary ancestor Scyld Sheafson. As a good king, Hrothgar has a few simple duties: defend his people, share his prosperity with those who are loyal to him, and intimidate the communities around them. But Grendel prevents him from doing at least two of those, and the Danes, who are not fools, weigh the danger of making themselves a Grendel snack against the loss of hanging out with their buddies in the mead hall. The Danes begin living elsewhere.
But in doing so, they run the risk of becoming isolated from each other––and of becoming outcasts themselves, like Cain, like Grendel. And thus monsters.
In some ways, we live in the mead hall, too. We congregate in places that manifest our culture and who we are as a society. We align ourselves through our involvement in geekery and sports and worship, in academia and cinema and social media, in the myriad other ways through which we define our free time and the people we spend it with.
The mead hall is spacious and acoustically gorgeous. It magnifies us, broadcasts who we are until we fill the space around us with our greatness. The mead hall amplifies us back to ourselves, and if we aren’t careful, it becomes our echo chamber.
Yes, we live there, and we aren’t any safer from Grendel than those Danes were.
Every once in a while, one of my ninth graders would fill the page with a drawing of a swirling, dark gray tornado, with words like “nuclear war” and “terrorism” and “man” spinning out of the vortex. I would look at that drawing and think, You get it.
Grendel is the personification of humanity’s fears. He demonstrates evil on a practical level––but also potential evil, what all people might become. He is, after all, descended from a human. But thanks to generations of foul pedigree, he’s different. Turned.
For a contemporary equivalent, consider zombies. In one sense, Grendel and zombies have little in common. One is a rage-filled beast living at the bottom of a lake so toxic it’s actively on fire. The others are the dead, also turned, whose resurrection has to be the cruelest joke imaginable. They shuffle their decaying corpses about, literally mindless, acting solely on their carnage instinct: a hunger for human brains (or any living flesh, depending on the mythos you’re going with). Zombies are people, but with the rational, civilized parts rotted away.
And what do zombies do? They impact people’s behavior in radical ways because they threaten to make us like them. Just take, for example, The Walking Dead, whose popularity is a clear indication of our society’s fascination with torture porn. Spoiler alert in case you’ve just started watching the show from the beginning: everyone is a potential zombie. Thanks to some virus that has infected the entire human species, zombiehood is everyone’s ultimate fate. And the people on the show are constantly fighting against that: the urge for survival is now layered with knowing there’s no glibly escaping their eventual undead hell.
So perhaps it’s stress that makes the humans on that show the more dangerous monsters. Zombies can be dealt with––and generally are, in a narrow rotation of uncreative ways. But the humans fight for territory and scarce resources and revenge. And sometimes pride. They fight in disgusting, evil ways, and so they are monsters, too. As John Gardner’s iteration of Grendel says of warring humans, “no wolf [is] so vicious to other wolves” (Gardner 32).
We can’t, it seems, escape Grendel. He’s everywhere, all around us. Grendel is every man who walks into a movie theater or café or opera house or concert or prayer meeting or classroom––or drives into a marathon or protest or holiday market or carnival or crowd of tourists––and lays waste to people who were doing nothing to him.
Grendel is every mean or myopic kid lashing out at their peers while hiding behind one of a billion ubiquitous screens.
Grendel is the concerted effort to discredit that which one does not like, to call it fake or unimportant or irrelevant. Grendel is a trumped-up charge against someone whose righteousness is a threat.
Grendel is every wretched troll of a man who, directly or indirectly, uses his penis––or his own idea of its greatness––to abuse or intimidate or violate another person. Grendel is the social convention that allows those trolls to get away with it and the further victimization that compels the silence of those who have been harmed.
Grendel is the awful circumstance, the miasma of profiling and prejudice and poverty and a lack of education and a lack of social awareness, which allows for the tragically predictable conditions that make possible such a thing as “suicide by cop.”
Grendel bullies the uppity outspoken to keep their opinions to themselves, so they quit engaging in public discourse. Grendel shames people, casting doubt on the trauma they’ve lived through so they are less likely to call out their abusers.
For some, Grendel is social media, too overwhelming too consuming too poisonous. But Grendel also induces people to step away from social media, so they lose touch with those who are dear to them emotionally but far from them geographically. Their voices, sometimes the voices of reason, disappear from the conversation. Terrorization and isolation are equally capable of destroying a community.
Grendel is the political misdeeds and anti-social policies that wear people down day after day until they are so fatigued by compassion or empathy or anguish or fear that they begin to check out and stop engaging with public action.
Grendel represents another, more subtle threat, too: if we collectively allow monsters to exist, do we collectively become monsters as well? As a society, we’re shockingly adept at pointing out the hypocrisy of others; it is part of our own lineage. As the parable goes, we can identify the speck in another person’s eye more easily than we can identify the plank in our own. And those in our community who have the privilege of living above the fray cannot always automatically recognize that this privilege exists, because we have inherited it over generations, because it is the burning lake we swim in. As David Foster Wallace might have reminded us, “this is water.”
In the epic poem, Grendel’s defeat comes at the hands of Beowulf, a Geatish hero keen to prove himself. Beowulf has heard of this scourge of the Danes and knows they can’t handle the problem alone. He travels across the sea and presents himself to Hrothgar, the aging Danish king, and offers his assistance. That night when Grendel invades, Beowulf battles him in single combat, without armor or weapons, bringing to bear the strength of thirty men in the grip of each hand. He rips Grendel’s arm off, and the monster exits stage left to die, but the battle isn’t quick. They fight most of the night. Beowulf doesn’t defeat Grendel just by being stronger; he defeats him through persistence. He refuses to give up; he refuses to let go.
Like Grendel, Beowulf is also abstract rather than literally real: he is too physically strong to be one single person. But he is also important for what he represents within us. In the poem, he faces other monsters than just Grendel, each more overwhelming and fantastical and impossible than the last. He’s like Superman or Captain America without the Dudley Do-Right image. And, just as with comics, when we internalize those stories, we have to understand that a superhero won’t actually sail in and save us from monsters. We have to save ourselves.
And what does that look like?
In Beowulf, the Danes’ hero comes from the outside. Hrothgar fails to protect his people for twelve winters in part, perhaps, because he has been laboring under the Good King paradigm for so long. He has othered the problem because it is easy to do so. He does not appear to consider, for even a moment, that the violence Grendel visits upon his community is not substantially different in scope or in result from the violence he himself has visited upon other communities on his path to Good Kingship. Hrothgar, in seeking to live up to the example of his glorious lineage, must become the “scourge of many tribes, / A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes” (Heaney, lines 4-5). When he becomes a “terror of the hall-troops,” “[t]he fortunes of war [favor] Hrothgar” (Heaney, lines 7, 64). And that good fortune makes him the “good king” he has striven to be, but this isn’t enough for him to be truly beneficial to his people.
When Grendel comes calling, the king fails to vanquish that which he fails to recognize as his own failing. Hrothgar’s defense against the scourge of his own mead hall is ineffectual because he lacks self-awareness. He refuses to acknowledge that maybe he isn’t, any longer, a good king.
In an effort to save themselves, how do the Danes react?
The highest in the land, would lend advice…
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
That the killer of souls might come to their aid
And save the people. (Heaney, lines 171-178)
The problem, as almost everyone knows, is that thoughts and prayers aren’t really a solution. Even we, in our own mead hall, can see they don’t work.
Hrothgar ultimately allows his people to be saved by accepting Beowulf’s help. In keeping with his cultural values, the king capitalizes on the Geatish hero’s excellent lineage and on the debt Beowulf’s father owed to Hrothgar from their youth. In doing so, Hrothgar saves his own reputation in front of his devoted subjects, but only by humbling himself and admitting he has failed. He has been in power for too long. He opens up to the strength of a man many decades his junior, inadvertently making way for a new generation of leaders: when Beowulf returns from the haunted mere triumphant, Hrothgar is so overcome with gratitude he tries to name Beowulf his heir. Queen Wealtheow wisely reminds the old king of their own sons, and Beowulf, now a trusted and treasured friend and ally, returns gloriously to Geatland, where he will one day become king himself.
Now let’s get back to the metaphors about the Human Condition the literature has gifted to us. If Grendel is carnal rage and revenge and violence and isolation, then Beowulf is reason and respect and logic and building community. Beowulf is appreciating our differences for the strengths they can bring us. Recognizing the importance of opening up to other people, searching for the value in the Other. Finding common ground and dismantling the systems of oppression that we have blindly let in, as well as the ones that have beaten down our doors.
This is not beyond us.
Everyone gets tired sometimes. Consider, though, a choir, in which many people sing, but not all at the same time. The tenor section fills up the cry while the soprani take a breath. The bass and alto contingents alternate their intensity. The singing doesn’t stop, and no one’s voice gets destroyed from overuse. They all come back together to finish the song, filling the mead hall with the resonant beauty of their music.
The monster isn’t snarling at the door; it’s inside, with us. But we can be stronger than it. We have the numbers on our side. We are a community filled with numerous groups of people, sometimes thirty strong, sometimes three hundred, sometimes three million, calling and writing and voting and marching together, actively seeking to engage people interested in making the world less monstrous. Grendel’s time is up. Hwaet. Let’s get to it, shall we?